|The Nativity offers us a unique snapshot of God's character|
'He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake.' These are, of course, lyrics from a popular (secular) Christmas song, referring not to God or to Jesus but instead to the character of Santa Claus, warning children that their Christmas wishes will only come true if they are well-behaved and saintly throughout the year. These words formed the backbone of Sunday night's sermon, and despite the obvious humour and lightheartedness it was clear what point the preacher was trying to make.
Christians are very good at cutting through the secular iconography and pointing out that Christmas is, in fact, all about the birth of Christ, but do they still continue to hold onto a 'Santa Claus model' of God where we are instructed to shut up and behave, or else? Does our modern view of the Gospel bear more than a passing resemblance to the words of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with the only difference being the punishment for disobedience? After all, Santa may have an infinite supply of lumps of coal to fill the stockings of unruly children, but God has access to a pit of fire and a state of eternal conscious torment. 'You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why...'
The point of Sunday's sermon was that this popular characterisation of God is inaccurate and does not describe the deity who broke into this world through the birth of Jesus Christ. For many Christians, God is someone or something to be feared; in the words of the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, fundamentalists tend to view God as a 'punishing, capricious, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system.' This is certainly the 'Santa Claus model' of God that we urgently need to reject, a somewhat totalitarian figure who weighs up our actions or our adherence to certain doctrinal positions before deciding whether or not to share his Kingdom with us or throw us into his never-ending torture machine.
The problem is, this raging deity is very different from the God described in Psalm 145; here we are told that God is 'gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.' He is not a violent and controlling being who is ready to dole out disproportionate punishment on a majority of humanity, but instead he is 'good to all' and 'has compassion on all he has made.' Nowhere is this more apparent than in the life of Jesus, where God's infinite and deep love for the world takes human form, and in the Christmas story we are presented with the real face of God; not a powerful warrior, a terrifying tyrant or a heartless monster, but an innocent and vulnerable infant born into poverty in a part of the world scarred by political turmoil and upheaval.
There are some real questions about the birth narratives of Jesus that liberal Christian scholars have rightfully asked. After all, the four gospels contradict each other in their telling of the Nativity story, whilst some of the details that we take for granted today are clearly nothing more than elaborate myth put in place by the writers to emphasise the significance of Jesus. As John Shelby Spong points out, Christians in the 21st Century should not be expected to suspend their intellectual credibility in order to profess belief in a star which guided Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus like a cosmic GPS system (and that actually led them to Herod's palace anyway). Our scientific knowledge of stars renders this story impossible, whilst one must also question why so-called 'Wise Men' would decide to follow a star for miles in the first place.
However, the facts surrounding these biblical stories are less relevant than the deeper meaning that they seek to point out. In his most recent book, Brian McLaren calls on Christians to adopt a more Jewish method of reading the Scriptures, abandoning crude literalism in order to explore the 'bottomless wells of meaning' that are contained within our faith stories. By applying this approach to the readings we hear in church this Christmas, maybe we can discover (or rediscover) something of the true nature of God, the divine characteristics which are revealed in the Gospels through Christ's birth, life and death. In doing so we can take a vital step away from our traditional concepts of God, and embrace the reality of a deity who steps into a tumultuous world in order to redeem a broken humanity.